Nov 13, 2015

Mind and Cosmos

via Gornahoor

Being a review of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the notorious atheist and Darwinist Richard Dawkins interviewed by a non-descript host on a cable news network. Since the context was a discussion of Ben Carson’s belief in creationism, the host listened with rapt attention to, but little understanding of, Dawkins’ presentation. Of course, for the half-educated intelligentsia represented by the hose, a blind belief in the “theory of evolution” is a status marker even though they neither understand it in depth nor are aware of its ultimate consequences for human thought.

Without defining the term, Dawkins asserted that “evolution” is a “fact”. We agree that the two basic components of evolution are facts. These are:
  • Descent with variation: the offspring are similar, but not identical to the parents.
  • Natural selection: some organisms will reproduce themselves better than others in their natural environments.
There are subsidiary facts, such as:
  • DNA sequences of similar organisms have many commonalities
  • The age of the earth seems to be quite old
  • The fossil record shows organisms arising and being replaced by other organisms

Nagel’s Thesis

There is no point in disputing settled scientific facts. Instead, Nagel himself points out some additional facts:
  • Consciousness: its subjective character has no physical explanation
  • Cognition: thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect independent of the thinker’s beliefs
  • Values: values are real, not merely subjective
Properly understood, Nagel shows that these facts cannot be explained by nature understood a simply physical and material. Nagel is an atheist, just like Dawkins, so there is no question of special pleading for a partisan religious view. The two components produce different results.
  1. Descent with random variation should work like a random walk. Specifically, “evolution” is not evolving, rather, it is probably going nowhere.
  2. Yet that is not what is observed. Instead, nature or the environment, seems to channel evolution in specific directions.


As part of organic life on Earth, man is subject to a multitude of laws. First of all, as a corporeal being, he is subject to the laws of physics: e.g., gravity, conservation of energy and momentum, and so on. Then, he is subject to the laws of chemistry, since a large number of chemical reactions constantly occur in the body.

However, physical and chemical laws are surely insufficient to understand any form of life, never mind human life. For example, it would not be possible to understand the movement of people in a city just based on force and momentum. It is not even possible in principle.

So, why would the “theory of evolution”, as a biological law, be able to explain the totality of the human being? That is what is objectionable in neo-Darwinism. The facts as such are not in dispute. What is far from obvious is that genetic variation and natural selection together explain everything about man. How can DNA cause conscious and sentient beings?

Chance and Intelligibility

Nagel begins his discussion with the notion of the intelligibility of the world. That is equivalent to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the notion that everything about the world can be understood at some level. Absolute Idealism (e.g., Plato, Schelling, etc.) considers rational intelligibility to be at the root of the natural order. So Nagel considers himself an absolute idealist (but never writes of the Absolute in this book).

Since mind is part of that order, it, too, must be intelligible. Nagel denies that physical, chemical, and biological laws –i.e., efficient causes alone—suffice to explain mind. Therefore, he is compelled to bring in the idea of teleology, or final causes, to explain the emergence of mind. That acts as a “pull” to the “push” of efficient causes. Although he does not express it this way, efficient causes are quantitative while final causes are qualitative. Since the whole scientific enterprise began with Francis Bacon’s rejection of final causes and Galileo’s rejection of qualitative explanations, Nagel in effect rolls back thought to a pre-modern era.

Nevertheless, it is not a simple reaction against the modern world, since it also incorporates whatever truths modern science has given us.

Unfortunately, while science has promised to make the world intelligible, it has done so by leaving out important features. First of all, the opposite of intelligibility is chance or randomness. In fact, a random sequence is such because the next element of the sequence cannot be inferred from any of the preceding elements. Perfect randomness, therefore, is the denial of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.


Every outdoorsman knows that a random walk in the woods leads nowhere; most likely, you would end up where you started. That is why you need to mark your path so you don’t traverse the same places twice. Hence, if a city boy was lost in the woods, but emerged two days later, you might call that a miracle. Or else, you might suspect he had some skills he hadn’t owned up to.

That is the situation as Nagel sees it. The emergence of conscious, intelligent, and rational beings by chance alone does not seem at all plausible. Now, the first factor in evolution, viz., variation or genetic drift, is certainly random. If it follows a random walk, it should go nowhere. Fossil records should show species evolving backwards to more primitive forms, for example. In other words, there is no “direction” to evolution, or, in other words, not teleology.

On the other hand, the second factor, natural selection, is not random. Dawkins himself did an experiment with Scrabble-like tiles. By randomly placing the tiles, followed by a selection mechanism, he would end up with an English sentence.

So if life as we know it is the result of random variations and natural selection, Nagel explores the selection factor. Specifically, what would nature have to be like to produce human beings?


Nagel endeavors to explain three facts: the emergence of consciousness, cognition, and value in biological species. As a committed naturalist, he rejects theological explanations that account for those facts from a force outside nature. That is fine since the general understanding of God in exoteric religious adherents is usually defective, creating more confusion than insight. Likewise, he rejects reductive naturalism that, in effect, deny the three facts rather than explain them.

The distinctive feature of consciousness is its subjective, or we would say qualitative aspect. There is no explanation of conscious experience in terms of physical laws. While brain states may empirically be shown to create certain experiences, that opposite is also true. Consciousness can likewise affect brain states.

This all seems difficult for some to accept. A diehard reductionist will rely on behavioristic explanations. For example, if an organism responds to a flash of light, that behavior is an indication of consciousness. In that view, then, there is nothing to explain. Similarly, human beings will “report” having certain sensations and experiences. The reporting is all that matters.

Yet that misses the essential point, viz., the subjective aspect of consciousness, which it attempts to make objective. Are the automatic doors at the supermarket conscious in any sense? According to the behaviorist criterion, perhaps they are. So why do we believe an octopus is conscious but not a door?

Nagel concludes, then, that mind is an essential part of nature, not a byproduct of material processes. This is a form of panpsychism.


Nagel then turns to “cognition” as he calls it, which appears in the human being. Metaphysically, the human being is defined by “intelligence”, which is different from seemingly intelligent activity in animals. Specifically, Nagel defines cognition as “the functions that have enabled us to transcend the perspective of the immediate lifeworld given to us by our sense and instincts, and to explore the larger objective reality of nature and value.”

Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker’s beliefs. Logic, mathematics, and metaphysics are timeless, hence immaterial. This is reminiscent of a more sophisticated version of C S Lewis’ “Argument from Reason”. Cognition certainly cannot be explained solely in terms of behavior. And it should sound odd that a lifeform would arise that would seek to understand its own origins.

Now a reductionist may try to refute this in a couple of different ways. One is the emergence of serendipitous uses for features that evolved because of reproductive fitness. For example, a hand came to be used by a Michelangelo to create beautiful art. Certainly, that in itself has no reproductive value. But that inadvertently confirms an earlier point: biology alone cannot explain everything about the human being.

Another is the obvious and glaring lack of logic and rationality in the human race. Evolutionary psychologists have noted many of the logical fallacies and irrational beliefs of humans. Nevertheless, they have biological fitness. True rationality, then, is just a special case of the origin of thinking.

It is rather odd that false ways of thinking lead to reproductive success. The rare thinking occasions involving objective truths probably have little reproductive success. For example, try discussing this review on your next date; I can guarantee you will go home alone. Moreover, the most scientifically advances societies usually have negative birth rates.


Nagel then points out the existence of objective standards of value: good and bad, right and wrong. This he calls “value realism”. Again, he claims that objective values make no sense in a materialistic universe. Things are good or bad not because genetically determined behaviors lead to the preference of one thing over another.

Human action involves more than physiology and desires, it requires judgment. Clearly, then, this requires “free will”, or the ability to act on a moral judgment.

Nagel shows the richness of absolute idealism in retrieving a deeper, more human, view of the cosmos, beyond the materialist reductionism that dominates educated thinking today. Nagel accomplishes this while fully incorporating scientific knowledge.

Mind, consciousness, intelligibility, rationality, judgment, free will, are all restored in a more comprehensive understanding of the cosmos. Nagel does this sparingly, a type of philosophic minimalism, with no brick that is not essential to the edifice he has created.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent summary of the salient elements of Nagel's book.
    For a newly-published statement of a contrary position, see chapter 8, "The Evolution of the Mind," in Matt Ridley's new book, The Evolution of Everything.